Cenote? What is a cenote? How do you even read this word? Cenote may sound foreign even to the best-traveled adventure-lover, but let me put it out there: cenotes are something you definitely don’t want to miss if you are traveling to Mexico.
The idea of traveling to Mexico is somewhat tainted with two sets of misconceptions: it’s either the dangerous land of drug lords, gang violence and thefts, or the beach resort destination for wild parties during Spring Break. Mexico is however a country with rich culture, breath-taking landscapes and welcoming people. Hopefully this piece about cenotes – a natural wonder that is most commonly associated with Yucatan, Mexico – along with a few upcoming reports documenting my adventures in Yucatan, Mexico, can provide you with transport details, tips or other travel information that I couldn’t find when I was doing research for my trip, and most importantly, an interest in visiting this beautiful country that has so much to offer.
What are Cenotes?
Back to cenotes. Pronounced “sin-no-tays”, these are natural sinkholes which are formed when the roof of a cavern, most often made of porous limestone bedrock, collapses and exposes the groundwater underneath. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to one of the largest underground river systems in the world that has created thousands of cenotes. Literally meaning “well” in the Mayan dzonot, these big water holes, apart from acting as water sources for ancient civilizations settling around the Yucatan Peninsula – which has almost no rivers and only a few lakes, are also believed by the Mayan people (you know, the folks whom we said predicted the 2012 doomsday when they actually didn’t) as gateways to afterlife and sites of sacrificial offerings. So the discovery of human skeletons among other sacrificial objects in these cenotes confirmed that human sacrifices were not just a myth.
Have no worries though, as that discovery was at Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders of the world (which you can read about here). The cenote I went to is called Gran Cenote which is located on the Coba Road 3.7 km/2 miles just outside of the town of Tulum. As you can judge by its name, Gran Cenote is huge. It is the main entrance of cave system Sac Aktun (The White Cave), currently the 2nd longest underwater cave system in the world with over 176km/ 110 miles of mapped and surveyed passages and over 130 cenotes interconnected within the system.
Activities, Facilities & Prices
The feeling of being in a cenote is simply too cool to be described in words. The entrance to the cenote resembles a ring-like swimming area, which leads to a lake-like pool of water on one side, and a dark enclosed cavern on the other side. The water is crystal clear freshwater that is so clean that as a trained swimmer I can open my eyes under water without feeling any sting. Rays of sunlight will shine down on the clear water at the openings, making it one of the most gorgeous things I ever seen. There are even bats living in the caverns!
Another bonus for animal lovers would be to swim with turtles because turtles do live in the Gran Cenote. If you are snorkeling you would be able to notice a sign telling you where the turtle zone is. As cenotes are completely natural, there are fishes swimming around in the pool of water too. One of the most interesting activities in the Gran Cenote is to stand on the rock right outside the turtle zone, amidst chit palms, terms, water lily and elephant ears, and wait for tiny fishes to come and nip at your feet. Free fish massage here!
So do bring your swimwear because you would want to escape from the heat. For non-swimmers, you can still have a look at how a cenote looks like at the cavern opening, and then take the stairs back up, walk past the changing rooms and head down the stairs to the other side of the cenote. You would be missing out most of the fun though.
Gran Cenote is not just called “the Big Cenote” because of its size. The cavern opening at Gran Cenote is huge, as compared to other openings that only allow a person to enter. The opening has vegetation, jungle trees and various water plants. The stalagmites and stalactites formations are also tall and wide. You are not allowed to touch the fossils though.
Cenotes are the entrance to a huge labyrinth of tunnels and caves underneath so they are great sites for snorkeling or scuba diving. You can see how deep the caverns really are under water and witness the formations yourself. If you are a scuba diver, you would have to book with a local dive centre. Entrance fee differs for divers and you would not be allowed to enter the Gran Cenote with scuba equipment unless you have a certified guide who is going to dive with you. And if you are snorkeling or scuba diving, remember to cover your head with your hand before you head above water – you don’t want to crash your head right into those rock formations!
The Gran Cenote is opened every day from 8 am to 5 pm. We enjoyed fooling around so much that we spent 3 hours there and nearly missed the closing time! You would kind of know when you are supposed to leave though – the water will get a bit too cold to soak in as the sun gradually sets. Entrance fee is 150 pesos per person and 200 pesos for divers.
There are toilets and changing facilities along with a restaurant that sells simple hot food. You can rent things you need right at the cenote: snorkeling equipments (snorkels, masks and swimming fins) cost 80 pesos, lockers rental is 30 pesos, life vests are 50 pesos and if you want to take photos underwater, you can buy an underwater camera at 250 pesos.
How to Get There
There is no public transport directly to and from Gran Cenote.
Car: From highway 307, turn into highway 109. Drive 4 km/2.5 miles, and on your right you will find it. Or just follow your GPS: Gran Cenote is marked as Great Cenote on Google Map. There are spaces for parking outside the site.
Step 1: Bus
Take the very convenient and frequent bus from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or any other parts of Riviera Maya to Tulum. You can choose to take the first class buses, second class buses or your cheapest option, the colectivo, minibuses that drops off and picks up passengers along highway 307. From Playa del Carmen, where I was staying:
- Colectivo [20-30 pesos one-way]
No air-con, less comfortable, still safe.
You have to tell the driver the destination and keep an eye out for your stop.
Every 15 minutes from Calle 2 between 15th and 20th Ave from 5am to 10pm everyday, except Sunday (ends at 7pm)
Check here for more information on how to take a colectivo.
- Second Class Buses operated by Mayab Buses [38 pesos one-way]
- First Class Buses operated by ADO [54-86 pesos one-way depending on time of departure]
I took a second class bus and it is very comfy, modern and even better than the buses in USA.
Buy your tickets up to 24 hours ahead at the ADO bus terminal at the corner of 5th Avenue and Benito Juarez.
You can check for the schedules here but buses are very frequent and you can just buy your ticket whenever and walk around 5th Avenue of Playa del Carmen while you wait.
Remember to ask for the schedule of returning buses!
Step 2: Taxi or Bike
There are taxis just outside the bus terminal at Tulum. For a short trip to the Gran Cenote, prices should be quite acceptable.
We however rented a bike at a shop just a block away from the terminal for a whole day for 80 pesos. We then cycled to Gran Cenote along highway 307. It was not an easy ride: takes 30 minutes of cycling under the intense heat (we were there mid-March and the heat was already killing us) on the quite bumpy highway when cars and trucks are whooshing by, but not unachievable. Remember to take short breaks and drink a lot of water along the way. You can lock your bike after you get into the area of the cenote.
The city of Tulum (means “wall” in Mayan) has its own impressive Pre-Columbian Maya ruins situated on 12-metre tall cliffs along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. A day trip going to the Tulum ruins and Gran Cenote would be a good idea.
The city is also close to Coba ruins, Muyil ruins and Sian Ka’an (“where the sky is born” or “gift from heaven” in the Maya language), a UNESCO world heritage site and a biosphere reserve. Those however will require a least a half day by itself.
TIP: Cancun iTips provide a really simple and easy-to-understand guide, with useful maps to Cancun, Riviera Maya and Yucatan in general (Tulum included of course). Be sure to check out their website or just grab a copy of their guide at a tourist information centre (there is one just outside the ADO bus terminal at 5th Ave in Playa del Carmen).
Blogger: Frances Sit